Plays vs. Novels

Among my creative goals for 2016 are revising two novels, (in two different stage of completion.) I am also revising a stage play, which hopefully will get at least a local reading before the end of the year.

Revising plays is so much different from revising novels. Both have their tedious qualities, and both have their satisfying aspects.

The easier part about revising novels is the amount of real estate to work with. If a scene isn’t working, I have the freedom more words to shuffle around. I can work the description, change dialogue, give myself more time to get to the point if needed. (Without boring the reader, hopefully.) In short, a novel allows me to meander to some extent. Fixing something that doesn’t work can happen in more than one fashion.

In a play of course, I generally don’t have that option. A play is almost exclusively what people say. I’m very much opposed to pages-long descriptions of sets and characters and actions for a script. As an actor/director such meticulous detail gets in the way. It’s obnoxious. I call it “phantom directing.” If a playwright wants to control the mood and the look to that extent, he ought to move into novel-writing, where in essences the writer controls everything on the page. (Though character’s do tend to dictate their own arc at times.)

The same goes for stage directions. If there are more than two sentences in a script at a time explaining movements and actions of actors, the playwright is too insecure, or hasn’t done their job.

When I write a play, (and i have only ever written three, two one-acts and a full length) I keep description and stage direction to a minimum. About 90% of character, motivations, sequence, tone and all such things are revealed directly through what characters say on stage. When something isn’t working for me in a script, most of the time, working on dialogue is my only recourse. I can change the sequence of scenes, somewhat, and maybe add one or two clarifying stage directions, but I can’t hope around location to location, or in and out of someone’s thoughts with ease, as I can in a novel. I have fewer means of “attack” when I revise a play.

This disadvantage of revising a play is however also its advantage. I don’t have as much to juggle. When writing or revising a novel, one can never really be “off” on the page. Every pause must be described, every sight and sound at least somewhat explained. No moment in the arc of a novel escapes scrutiny when it comes to diction, word choice, sentence length, and so on. That’s a lot of sentences to take care of, each one with a different purpose. That means I have to switch my “ear” to tune into different aspects of a novel at any given point in a rewrite. Am I doing character here, or description, or dialogue?

In a play, I need only worry about how the dialogue sounds. It may take me a few tries to get it right, but it’s the only thing to which I’m dedicating the word craft. If Bob leaves, I put Exit Bob and am done with it. No exploration. No poetry. No symbolism. If I need Bob to get out, I state it, and that’s that.

In a play, the thunder doesn’t have to “roll over the sky like an ancient boulder scraping along and gathering steam over its mother mountain, on it’s way to oblivion.” In a play it’s. “Sound of thunder.”

I love writing good prose, even if I’m not usually fancy with it. But the novelist in me still enjoys the break he gets when I am revising a play.

It’s different for every writer of course. Some may not see these aspects of revising as positives. I also would surmise at this time that over the course of my life, I will have written more novels and stories than plays. Still, while spending time on one, it helps me to remember the distinct advantages one has over the other.

I try not to dwell too much on the distinct difficulties of each; writing is difficult enough as it is.

Do you write plays and/or novels? Which is easier for you?



1 Comment

  1. markrhunter

    I wrote several plays in high school, and just after. I’m happy to say they’ve all vanished–they were terrible. *Terrible.* Maybe I could do better these days, but I prefer novels and short stories, where I have much more freedom of creation. (Well, that’s how I feel, anyway.) I do love good dialogue, though.

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